August 29, 2014
By C. L. Max Nikias
It is a tremendous pleasure to welcome you all on this historic day for our university. Today, the University of Southern California is a global institution that moves the world in every realm of human endeavor. USC is also a place that is rich with symbols and traditions and values unlike any other institution of higher learning.
These symbols and traditions root us in the past, guide us in our current work, and inspire every tomorrow. They forge our ethos and mission, tempering our character and potential in the hearth of destiny. Yet every great institution can point to very humble beginnings.
As Virgil wrote in his classic epic, The Aeneid, mighty Rome could trace its descendants and humble beginnings to the often fruitless wanderings of the exiled Trojan hero Aeneas. It is at these times that unbounded dreams intersect with unfulfilled potential.
Today, we honor the life and legacy of a man who stood at the brink of promise. Through sheer determination and a decade of relentless effort, this towering figure bent the arc of destiny and brought our beloved university into being.
That man was Judge Robert Maclay Widney.
Judge Widney was the chief architect and the founder of USC. When he arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1860s, it was mostly a dusty village in a lonely frontier in the American Wild West. It was also barren of any dynamic educational institutions. But Judge Widney saw something special.
One night he stood in an empty field not far from here. And in that quiet field, Judge Widney had a dream. He looked around, and saw one of the most favorable environments ever known to humanity: majestic mountains with snow in the winter within easy reach; a vast ocean nearby, which offered open access to the world; and a climate designed by heaven itself, offering the unlimited expression of the human mind, body, and spirit.
This, he said, is where the next great world city will arise—this is where the next great world university will arise.
That night, a spark of intuition kindled his understanding that Los Angeles would need a robust university to be a key driver of growth and opportunity for the city. Such a university would also need a blossoming metropolis to nourish its own development and discoveries. It was a synergy born of pure vision and unbridled ambition, fueled by one man’s will to bring heaven to earth, and he would move heaven and earth to make it all possible.
One simply cannot overestimate Judge Widney’s role in USC’s birth and early growth. He personally drafted the university’s articles of incorporation, which our statue now holds, and you’ll soon see. He asked and convinced three real estate partners – Childs, Downey, and Hellman – to donate the land. He was the first chairman of USC’s board of trustees. His brother, Joseph Widney, founded USC’s medical school in 1882 and later became the second president of the university.
Judge Widney donated $100,000 for the university’s first endowment fund—an extraordinary amount in that age—and he would later supervise the management of this fund. He was a dreamer, a visionary, a builder. Through force of will, he reimagined a region and the destinies of countless others who would follow here.
It is only fitting that the person who would shepherd USC through its humble beginnings was himself a man of modest origins. Robert Maclay Widney was raised on a farm in central Ohio and later spent years hunting and trapping in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. When he arrived as a young man in California, he chopped down trees for a living. And when he finally reached Los Angeles in 1868, he had one trunk of possessions and one hundred dollars to his name.
But as much as he was a man of the external world, he was also a man of the internal mind who was fiercely devoted to education.
A short time after graduating from the University of the Pacific, he became a professor in mathematics there—without pay. A true polymath, Widney also taught geology, chemistry, engineering and religion. His passion for teaching and learning was simply inexhaustible, and somehow he also managed to find time to write.
In his book The Plan of Creation, his rigorous intellect strived to understand religion through the prism of science and see the design of the divine through natural laws. He also studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1865. In 1871, he was appointed a U.S. district judge here in LA.
But it was also in that year—nearly a decade before USC’s founding—that the university’s character would be born. At the time, the American West was struggling with an early collision of cultures: Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high across the West. Jealousy, economic fears, and labor disputes fanned the flames of violence.
One night, anti-Chinese riots broke out in the streets of Los Angeles. Deadly mobs took to the streets. At a moment of high fever during those riots, Judge Widney plunged into a crowd besieging Chinese immigrants, at the risk of his own life.
Remember, Judge Widney was known as the “pistol-packing judge.” He carried his pistol everywhere, and in the statue you’ll see its outline underneath his coat!
That evening, Judge Widney held his gun high and fired a single shot. The crowd stepped back, and the future founder and first chairman of USC then escorted a number of the Chinese immigrants to safety.
In that moment, my fellow Trojans, the DNA of USC as a global institution first materialized. On that evening, the ethos, the character, of USC began to take shape.
Character is destiny, and USC would have a global character. A few years later, Japanese students would be among USC’s first graduates. USC would later develop the largest body of international alumni in the world, mostly from the emerging nations of the Pacific.
More than a quarter-century before Congress gave women the right to vote, a quarter of USC’s first professors were women. USC’s very first valedictorian was also a woman. In the realm of diversity, all things that universities today strive to be, we have long been.
Judge Widney is also widely considered the architect of Los Angeles. He worked to bring the Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles, which was critical in its development. He organized the city’s first chamber of commerce and its first light and power company. In addition, he was a real estate developer. And if one city weren’t enough to build, he was also the co-founder of Long Beach.
Incredibly, he also found time to be an inventor. He held a patent for a fruit grader and separator, which is only fitting for a man whose many wide-ranging contributions cry out for sorting, even to this day.
Not long before Robert Maclay Widney’s death in 1929, his daughter Frances and her husband took him on a long automobile tour of the city he helped build—the city that was just a cattle town when he first arrived. They traveled from his downtown home through the growing areas of Pasadena and Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. They showed him world-class railroads being built across the city, and the massive harbors that connected Los Angeles to the world. They visited the magnificent City Hall, which was still under construction. They gazed upon massive office buildings, and young movie studios emerging at the dawn of American cinema.
They saw a great city coming into maturity. For much of that ride, Judge Widney said almost nothing. Then, at the end of the long day, they brought him to the busy USC campus, abounding with life and radiating with untold possibilities.
Judge Widney turned to his daughter Frances, and said: “All my life, I have been telling people about the incredible future of Los Angeles. But in my wildest dreams, I never conceived anything as wonderful as this university!”
Those powerful words—Judge Widney’s vision for USC—now appear at the base of the statue we dedicate today, etched permanently on its plaque, a touchstone for generations of Trojans.
Today we pay tribute to this remarkable man who turned gusts of adversity into winds of opportunity. We do so through great art, erecting a new symbol on our campus in celebration of his pioneering accomplishments.
Standing at eight-and-a-half feet tall, its weight over 1,000 pounds, this mixture of bronze and steel is no lifeless memorial to the founder of USC. This statue is living testimony of Judge Widney’s vision in creating a dynamic global university. USC was founded in 1880 in the building right behind me, when Robert Maclay Widney was just 42 years old.
Its illustrious sculptor—Christopher Slatoff—joins us today. The son of an abstract painter, Mr. Slatoff was born and raised in California, and his highly evocative works appear throughout our state, as well as in Asia and Europe.
The Port of San Diego commissioned his majestic piece, “Sheltering Wings,” which has earned him international fame. Mr. Slatoff’s peers awarded him the Gold Medal for Best Sculpture, and have praised his work for exuding “the visceral meaning of life itself.”
Monuments such as Mr. Slatoff’s are timeless storytellers. They chronicle our past, while heralding our destiny. Monuments are frozen history, our values suspended in substance. Monuments are the physical embodiment of our dreams, the symbols of our humble beginnings, and the material repository of lessons learned. Monuments allow us to touch humanity’s relentless journey, to cup the face of promise, and to embrace our achievements.
And so, too, will this statue of Judge Robert Maclay Widney reconnect us with our humble past while inspiring a triumphant future. In doing so, it will radiate brilliance, the spirit and ethos of this exceptional man—and this enduring university—for many, many generations to come.
Thank you, and Fight On!